OT: 27 November 1915 – James Cameron [“The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”]



The Oban Times, 27 November, 1915

[The Bagpipe Chanter Scale]

Edinburgh, 20 November, 1915

Sir,–Mr. MacPharlain remarks that “pipers” are getting “no forrarder” with their controversy. Because Mr. Grant holds the opinion expressed that the G’s on the chanter are not “natural” (using this term in contradistinction to “sharp” or “flat” and not taking into account “mathematical” exactitude which he urges on Mr. MacRae), and further, that according to him tunes in other than A are not or cannot be played on the pipes, it does not follow that other pipers are similarly afflicted.

As far as I can make out, Mr. MacPharlain’s Scale I in two days (20th N) issue is simply our old chanter friend, that of key of D, otherwise his twin brother A with flat G, neglecting trifling difference in vibration numbers in certain intervals.

As Mr. MacPharlain does not give the absolute value of his standard “middle C” or other note I cannot calculate exactly his values or compare them with other values of say MacNeil and “Manson” or standard concert pitch.

Of course his friends on hearing his “Soh mode” in the scale on paper and on chanter in part, or A with flat seventh on chanter naturally say “O yes, the bagpipe effect” of which none “Reel of Tulloch” and “Tulloch Gorm” are good examples, although his finding is not absolute.

But as I have stated there are plenty of tunes on the pipes not in the “characteristic” key of flat seventh, as also Mr. MacRae has hammered away at.

Now for the “Flowers of the Forest” example. I have remarked before that it is murdered on the pipes because the chanter compass is too limited. Given another half octave or so, as the key is all right, the tune would be playable. Picking up an old book from which I learned “Sol-fa” under a precentor in 1878 (“Scottish Songs,” Hamilton’s patent “Union” method, 33 Bath Street, Glasgow), I find, p. 6, the “Flowers” given, the first part in three sharps A, second part two sharps D, and third part again key A, with warning notice “key D” and signatures F and C Sharp and G natural in the second part; guiding letters t and s being used to show when key changes, the “doh” changing to Mr. MacPharlain’s “Soh.” Thus is Mr. MacPharlain’s “Soh-mode” “revealed!” Again looking over an old book of my late father’s (Wilson’s Handbook of Songs of Scotland, 1851. Glasgow, Griffin & Co.), the “Flowers” are given as in 3 sharps and the G where necessary is “naturalised” like a Hun alien by an “accidental.” Thus the apparent abstruseness is not too difficult of comprehension. Where he leaves his readers, like myself nonprofessional musicians, in difficulties is and not homologating his “Sol-fah” with “Staff” notation for the chanter notes on the chanter.

Of course “Sol-fah” and absolute vibrations can be used in discussing the voice and the stringed instruments and studying sound on the monochord and with the syren, but when dealing with keyed and holed instruments like the chanter and which are only correct within limits, one cannot abide like Mr. MacPharlain on a sort of musical “astral plane.” He must come down to earth and to actualities and be understanded of the people and most of all by pipers. Hence I hope he will give us his theoretical values, in staff notation applicable to the chanter without to elaborate refinement.

As regards the “pentatonic” scale which ordinary mortals associate with the five black keys of the piano starting with F sharp, years ago I remember it was said that all “Scotch” airs were on the “pentatonic” system, as were also “Chinese” and so “Scotch” music was “Chinese” and vice versa!

Mr. MacPharlain deals effectively with J. P. M.’s interesting studies in “five note” theory, and they are of great interest, but I fancy a little speculative and daring.

Bagpipe makers who read your excellent paper must be smiling at all this abstruseness while they quietly turn and bore chanters by traditional rule of thumb and notions. As “Museaus” said, we are “beating the air” until we have like the churches, “standards.” A jury of pipers, pipe makers, and musicians–theorists, experimentalists, “woodwind “players, etc.–only could deal with the matter of “standardising” within practicable limits chanters and chanter notes upon given conditions.

In the meantime we will have to go on with chanters as they are, unless enthusiasts have been made to their own specifications, not a difficult matter, or like Herschell, who made his own telescopes, make them themselves, while periodical discussions like the present one centre round an “unknown quantity” and leave nothing behind but the echo of “an tartarach phiob.”–I am, etc.,

James Cameron

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